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(en) US, Bring The Rukus* E-Journal, How Are Schools Racists? Let Me Count the Ways - by Steve Lorenz

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 10 Feb 2005 08:47:45 +0100 (CET)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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It is accepted by virtually everyone from most political perspectives
that a person’s education is a key to their freedom. Although
definitions of freedom may vary widely, there is not as much
difference in people’s definitions of education. Images of pencils,
(pesticide-laden) super-red apples, and desks in neat rows quickly
come to mind. But where do these images come from, and why are
they the ones that even political enemies share? Surely, in the
thousands of years that native North Americans thrived before the
arrival of Europeans, their young were educated—that is,
introduced into the ways that their communities worked and
encouraged to find socially meaningful work for themselves. With the
arrival of the whites, this general educational tradition—which
varied from tribe to tribe—has been on the retreat, and has nearly
been stamped out entirely. A rich oral culture was subsumed by
necessity, as the need for literacy grew due to the exigencies of
making treaties and negotiations with whites.

Although it is not my wish to romanticize the Native education, it is
useful to think about, particularly in today’s educational context.
To return to the original statement of this essay, I add this twist: A
people’s education is a key to their collective liberation. For
Native Americans, and African-, Mexican-, Asian- and
Arab-Americans and Puerto Ricans, the quest for liberation in this
land of the white has been thwarted in no small part because of how
their educational opportunities have been controlled by the white
ruling elite. Although I am not positing that a common school, or a
public school as it has come to be known, can of itself create a free
society, I am arguing that schools are institutions that steadfastly
uphold the racial divide that pervades the rest of U.S. society. With
some exceptions due to immense struggle, the history of American
education has been the elevation, imposition, and maintenance of
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. This continues to this day.

In popular cinematic depictions of inner-city schools with majority
people of color students, which often, though not always have
‘happy’ ending, the theme often conveys that non-white
characters (be they students, teachers, or principals) can achieve
some form of salvation by adopting a WASP outlook. Whether
it’s accepting a white heroine teacher (Dangerous Minds), a
‘good’ teacher exacting revenge (187, The Substitute), or an
authoritarian wielding a Louisville Slugger and bullhorn, keeping all
the scum out, and whipping the students into shape to pass the test
designed by whites (Lean on Me), such films play to the values of the
dominant culture rather than develop a critical analysis of it or even
portray people of color building real community power. Of course, it
is not of celluloid dreams that liberation will come; however, it will
neither come by some accident of benevolence passed on by the
ruling elite—that is clear. From the pure denial of education to the
separate but unequal schools, for the Chicano kids of the southwest
to the Puerto Rican kids of New York City to the African American
kids of Chicago, the history and present of the U.S. school system is
filled with racism.

First, a little history: It should not be necessary to allot much time to
describing how schools have contributed to the domination of all
people of color in the United States, but a few helpful facts and
anecdotes might remind us. The legacy of segregation (and its return
due to such factors as de-industrialization and white flight) cannot be
overestimated. The education in most non-white schools was vastly
inferior, as it was intended to supply an underclass of people who
would accept a social position of underemployment and perpetual
landlessness. From 1899, hear William H. Baldwin, president of the
Long Island Railroad, in a statement widely accepted by liberals and
‘progressives’ of the time: “Know that it is a crime for
any teacher, white or black, to educate the Negro for positions which
are not open to him.” The type of education they received in the
late 19th and early 20th century is epitomized by the Hampton
Institute—attended by Booker T. Washington—where young
black students where taught in the ways of hard manual labor. This
curriculum was adopted later on as the general track into which most
African American students were placed. In fact, in many one-race
school districts the “general track”—one that did little to
prepare a person for college or a job—was the only one available.

Though school administrators and social reformers who influenced
American education all varied in their approach to dealing with
‘Negro,’ ‘Indian,’ and ‘foreign stock’(which
for a while included Southern Europeans, Eastern Europeans and
Irish), they were fairly unanimous in their desire to impose the
dominant culture on them. Whether it was to acquire Indian lands,
bring African Americans into the employment pool, or curb the
spread of Catholicism, these efforts were very successful.

The English Language has been the major force of deculturalization
of youth of color in schools. There is a long history of Native
Americans, blacks, and immigrants being forced to learn English and
made to lose their native tongue. Obviously, with the passage of
Question 2 in last year’s election, which barred teachers from
using students’ native languages in the classroom, the forces of
reaction in the form of English-only zealots are alive and well. This
deculturalization, which includes many other elements beyond
language, has always been best imposed by appealing to logic,
market forces, and an overall nod to ‘what’s best for the
kids.’ This is seen in the development of so-called proper English
or standard English—the historical basis for which is murky at
best: If people don’t know ‘proper English’ they
won’t be able to get jobs and do well. But who really knows
‘proper English’ and what allegiance should we have to it?
Similarly, the racist rollback of 1960s and 70s-era bilingual education
programs, programs that worked to a large extent and increased the
bilingualism of whites, is achieved by appealing to the American
value of equal opportunity. Whether put forth by nakedly racist and
anti-immigrant factions or someone such as Rosalie Porter, who
spearheaded local support for Question 2 by appealing to
‘equality,’ the deculturalization policies are still working.

Funding of majority non-white schools is still substantially lower than
majority white districts in virtually every instance. Because school
funding is largely tied to property taxes, this is the way in which it is
easiest to see the vast political and economic forces at work and the
racism that persists. Thus, especially in this time of state fiscal crises,
it is not uncommon to see a severe dearth of textbooks (to say
nothing of how outdated they are), as well as great structural
problems within the schools themselves, including ceilings falling in
on kids’ heads—the same as what Jonathan Kozol described
happened in Roxbury schools in 1967 in Death at an Early Age.
Though we hear much through mainstream media about the
wasteland of inner city schools in regard to how violent they are
(though most high-profile schools shooters have been white and in
mostly-white districts), it is the school buildings and the toxins they
harbor that are more of a threat to students of color in poor urban

The face of authority and knowledge is white. Although 33% of
students enrolled in public schools are “minorities” and that
number is expected to climb to 42% within the next few years, only
13% of all teachers are “minorities,” and that number is
expected to shrink to as low as 5% in the next decade. Numbers for
administrators are even lower. Much of this can be attributed to the
growing power of graduate schools of education and the related
teacher-certification process which excludes many people of color
due to cost prohibitions, and lack of recruitment and retainment
programs. It is interesting that the AmeriCorps program allows for
non-certified college graduates to teach in inner-city public schools,
and that many of those who enroll are white and middle class, some
of them doing their Clintonian charity work before moving on with
their careers. The assumption is that these young graduates will have
at least a modicum of competence—enough to teach the colored
kids, anyway. But there would never be a program that allowed for a
large number of non-certified, non-college graduates of color to teach
in any school, regardless of how great their desire to do so. In the end
we are left with a lot of white faces at the front of a lot of non-white
students. For many working class people of color there may develop
either feelings of deference or animosity—or some combination of
both—toward their children’s teachers. But mostly they might
just wonder, ‘Why can’t someone from our community
teach our kids?’

The form and content of school is racist. In the most contentious
subjects—social studies, history and English—the story is still
told from a very white point of view. Although many textbooks have
been ‘upgraded’ to reflect the contributions of people of color
to civilization and, in particular, the United States, they are still tools
to foster obedience and conformity to, as bell hooks calls it, the
capitalist-white supremacist-patriarchal system. So, though we see a
few more black, brown, and Asian faces, major criticisms of the U.S.
by people of color are avoided or are left out altogether. The reason
for this can be gleaned from the celebrated liberal establishment
historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who has said that students should
be united around a core set of values derived from White
Anglo-Saxon Protestant traditions. He says of the United States:
“The language of the new nation, its laws, its institutions, its
political ideas, its literature, its customs, its precepts, its prayers,
primarily derived from Britain.” Thus we have curriculums that
admit the gross injustices of slavery and Japanese internment but
hold that whites also set up a great system under which all people can

Furthermore, standards of excellence have been created by white
people, and for white people. These standards deny the cultural forms
that many non-whites used to or still employ. What is excellent? A
score of 1400 on the SATs, or an intricately woven blanket? Writing
an essay for judges to score or rapping a song for friends on a street
corner? School is not about finding out what’s worth doing, or
about figuring things out, it’s about other people taking up your
time—this is true for youth of color more than anyone.
In further incursions on time and freedom, these standards have
increasingly been measured through standardized tests, which largely
serve to marginalize people of color and working class whites who
don’t have the same community resources to ensure their
success on such tests. These tests also reinforce the myth of a
standard English, completely ignoring the nuanced, lyrical and
effective way in which non-white and non-native English speakers

The standard weapon of defense by social justice and anti-racist
advocates against the conservative culture warriors has been to call
for multiculturalism in the school curriculum. This has resulted in
some positive results: a rethinking of the Western canon to reflect the
writings of people of color and women; a mostly positive reflection on
the civil rights movement and some of the aspirations of ‘key
leaders’ like Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, at times, and in
different places, strong support for bilingual/ESOL education, and
various units and projects about the quest for civil rights. In some
places, a push for multicultural education has also led to different
methods for teaching math concepts. What multicultural education
has not ushered in is a complete revamping of all kids’ schooling,
where all students become at least bilingual and study different
cultures. As educator James Banks says, multiculturalism should
pervade the curriculum and general life of the school, including
bulletin boards, lunchrooms, assemblies, everything. In my view,
what multiculturalism has come to mean has been self-esteem
building for people of color—it has even been described as such by
both advocates and opponents. This is lamentable, because mere
pride in one’s heritage does not translate into attaining freedom.
We would do well to heed the lesson of W.E.B. DuBois, who urged
for educating blacks to be discontented with their social position. In
The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois describes John, before his meeting
with the judge, standing on a bluff with his younger sister:
Long they stood together, peering over the gray unsettled water.

“John,” she said, “does it make everyone—unhappy
when they study and learn lots of things?”
He paused and smiled, “I am afraid it does,” he said.
“And, John, are you glad you studied?”
“Yes,” came the answer, slowly and positively.
Zach de la Rocha, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, whispered
a variation on that sentiment in Freedom, on Rage’s debut CD:
“Anger is a gift.”

So, what can be done about the racism that pervades every aspect of
U.S. schooling, where young people of color are prepared for
incarceration and/or dead-end jobs and consumption? It might be
tempting for some folks to recommend Grace Llewellyn’s
Teenage Liberation Handbook or her Real Lives, about
African-American girls who drop out of school, but there are two
major problems with that: first, when a working class youth of color
drops out of school (s)he immediately commands the attention of
cops and courts and forfeits many already bleak job opportunities,
and second, it is not a broad strategy. Therefore, though it may seem
to some contradictory, we must defend public education and call for
the expansion of ‘free’ schooling. This means arguing for
education to be considered a human right for everyone, and
demanding access to higher education without charge and with
whatever remedial help people need. Also, bilingual education
programs must be defended and struggled for, arguing boldly and
eloquently against the ‘logic’ of the market and English-only

For those who think they might want to teach, be they white or
non-white, by all means do so…but only if you’re preparing to
learn as well as teach, and only if you’re going to teach, in
hooks’ words, ‘to transgress.’ There’s plenty else to
do, too. During Reconstruction, many former slaves took the
initiative to form their own schools. These efforts can be replicated in
the form of ethnocentric schools, social justice schools, and free
schools, and they should be supported. Also, support the
self-organization of young people of color, whether they’re
forming clubs, demanding park space, organizing poetry and hip hop
nights, or starting liberation schools.

Increased mechanization of the modern public school in the form of
disciplining and teaching to tests is doomed to failure. Thus, as has
been the case over the last 150 years of schooling when things have
been too racist, or too religious, or too authoritarian, the social
controllers and ruling elite will ease up a bit. Perhaps they won’t
add twenty more tests, as some might like. But there is no doubt that
U.S. schools will seek to continue to elevate WASP culture and retain
its racist character. In that context, radicals and revolutionaries must
seek to support communities of color in building power against the
racist state school and support the struggles of youth of color against
the social factory that is the contemporary school and recognize their
power as revolutionary agents.
* Bring The Rukus is an antiauthotitarian anticapitalist
direct action revolutionary initiative.

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